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Tinker Tour empowers young voices through activism

-  Mary Beth Tinker shares her story with Gordon Russell Middle schoolers


by: OUTLOOK PHOTO: JIM CLARK - In eighth grade, Mary Beth Tinker became an activist when she protested the Vietnam War by wearing a black armband. She was suspended, and her case went to the Supreme Court. Today,  Tinker and attorney Mike Hiestand have a goal of empowering youth voices through First Amendment activism with the Tinker Tour.

There once was a boy in the 1700s who wrote a blog of sorts, saying we should all have our own ideas.

After getting in trouble for writing columns under a pen name, the boy became a homeless teenage runaway.

That boy was Benjamin Franklin.

“Kids throughout history have stood up and made things better,” youth rights activist Mary Beth Tinker told eighth-grade students Monday during the “Tinker Tour” assembly at Gordon Russell Middle School.

“That’s true today, too. Part of our tour is hearing about how students are using their First Amendment rights to speak up and make a difference in issues that affect their daily lives.”

Tinker was 13 when she was suspended in 1965 for wearing a black armband to mourn Vietnam War deaths at Harding Middle School in Des Moines, Iowa.

Little did she know that her actions would catch the attention of the American Civil Liberties Union (ACLU) and spur a landmark 7-2 Supreme Court ruling on First Amendment rights.

Today, the feisty nurse, union organizer and activist is bringing civics education to life on the Tinker Tour with free press attorney Mike Hiestand. The national tour — now on its West Coast leg — is supported by the Student Press Law Center.

“I made a difference with just a simple black armband,” Tinker, who now lives in Washington, D.C., tells students. “Can you imagine what a shy 13-year-old could do today with all the extraordinary speech tools available?”

In 1969, Supreme Court Associate Justice Abe Fortas ruled that neither students nor teachers “shed their constitutional rights at the schoolhouse gate.” The Tinker vs. Des Moines Independent School District ruling became the foundation for students’ First Amendment rights.

The case is cited in nearly every First Amendment case regarding students, and in many American civics and history textbooks. Tinker is also featured in the book “101 Changemakers: Rebels and Radicals Who Changed U.S. History.”

“There are so many things in the world that can bring kids down and make them upset,” Tinker said. “That’s how I felt — worried and upset. There was Birmingham (a center of the civil rights struggle), the Ku Klux Klan, the war in Vietnam. We saw these images on TV that were so upsetting. But we had to find ways to feel good and hopeful. When you join up and work on something that helps make the world better, it’s a good way of life.”

An activist’s roots

The daughter of a Methodist minister, Tinker grew up in a family dedicated to social justice.

She was deeply influenced by a visit to Ruleville, Miss., in 1964 during Freedom Summer, an organized movement to register African Americans to vote.

A shy adolescent, Tinker focused her energy on studying math and rollerskating at the local rink. But as the Vietnam War escalated, Tinker couldn’t sit back watching the graphic footage on TV.

She, her brother, John, and friend, Christopher Eckhardt, began wearing black armbands at school to honor the deaths on both sides of the war.

The students wanted to support Sen. Robert Kennedy’s call for a Christmas truce by holding a school protest, spearheaded by Eckhardt.

Hearing of a planned protest, school administrators foiled the plan, forbidding armbands and threatening to suspend students who didn’t remove them.

Tinker’s math teacher sent her to the principal’s office with a pink slip. She and four fellow activists, including her brother and Eckhardt, were suspended.

After the suspension, Tinker’s family was threatened by a radio show host. Red paint was thrown on their house, and one woman called Tinker to say, “I’m going to kill you!”

The school board voted 5-2 to uphold the principal’s ban, but the ACLU rallied behind the students and filed a complaint with the U.S. District Court of the Southern District of Iowa, claiming the decision infringed upon their freedom of expression under the First Amendment.

The court dismissed the complaint. It went to the Court of Appeals, where the justices were split, so the case landed in the Supreme Court. The landmark decision came in 1969 that public school students have First Amendment rights on school grounds.

Today, the decision directly affects cases involving the rights of students, such as holding up a banner by their school, printing material in school publications and posting on social media.

Tinker went on to become a pediatric nurse active in her union. She received master’s degrees in public health and nursing.

The Marshall-Brennan Project at Washington College of Law at American University named its annual youth advocacy award after Tinker in 2000, and the ACLU National Board of Directors’ Youth Affairs Committee renamed its youth affairs award the Mary Beth Tinker Youth Involvement Award in 2006.

The Tinker Tour

by: OUTLOOK PHOTO: JIM CLARK - Mary Beth Tinker gives T-shirts to Gordon Russell Middle School eighth-graders who flexed their First Amendment knowledge during the Tinker Tour assembly Monday.

Following Monday’s assembly, Tinker signed black armbands for students and posed for pictures, holding up her signature peace sign.

“Where there is a turning point in the revolution, where there is inequality, where there is pollution, we have our own secret weapon: young people,” Tinker said.

Students such as Zach Doering and Laura Carrasco felt inspired, learning Tinker had made such a historic difference in the country when she was their age.

“I want to stand up for myself in the way she did,” Doering said. “It was inspiring and interesting to hear her story.”

Carrasco said she felt inspired to stand up for her Mexican heritage and immigration rights. “I want to stand up for my rights and what I believe in,” Carrasco said.

Tinker and Hiestand were delighted to hear Gordon Russell Middle School has its own online publication, The Totem Post.

Eighth-grade social studies teachers Eric Neiwert and Laurie Fisher helped bring the Tinker Tour to Gordon Russell, one of five stops in the Portland area.

The Tinker Tour has a goal of empowering youth voices through First Amendment activism. It kicked off on Constitution Day, Sept. 17, 2013, in Philadelphia and has visited schools, universities, libraries and youth detention centers across the country in a colorful RV.

Last fall, the tour covered 15,595 miles and 58 stops along the East Coast and southeastern United States. Tinker and Hiestand visited her middle school in Des Moines, where the school designated an honorary free speech locker for her.

Schools such as Gordon Russell submitted requests through the tour website for Tinker to speak. The tour is free, but asks for gas contributions to assist with travel and tour expenses.

To learn more about the Tinker Tour, visit tinkertourusa.org/ or search the hashtag #tinkertour.



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